Making the case for short-term philanthropy

by Peter Cafferkey | Posted on 24 July 2017

Many believe that resources invested in long-term systemic change have the greatest impact. But there is a strong case for the importance of short-term philanthropy.

With Jeff Bezos making headlines last month with his Twitter-based announcement on wanting “much of my philanthropy activity to be helping people in the here and now — short term”, the spotlight has been turned onto whether philanthropists have a responsibility to focus on long-term change at the expense of instant impact.

What should philanthropists be aiming for and what is an ‘acceptable’ ambition and return for their philanthropy? At philanthropic advisor Boncerto we feel that those lining up to criticise Bezos and his short-term horizons need to remember the passion, as well as the science, of philanthropy.

With the welcome rise of strategic philanthropy and an industry looking to support effective and long-term changes that philanthropy can make, we have seen an increasing number of large-scale, high-profile, long-term impacts achieved by philanthropists.

Increased investment in system-change approaches with a growing data-led approach have led to large-scale victories changing the lives of millions around the world, raising the bar on both what can be achieved and expectations of new ‘big-ticket’ philanthropists.

We would always encourage philanthropists to spend time thinking through their giving. It is positive that philanthropists are moving from ‘treating the symptoms’ to more ambitious programmes aimed at ‘curing the disease’. If you don’t invest for the long term it is very likely you will find yourself back at the same place year after year — no matter how much money or time you put in.

However, it also important philanthropists get to learn by doing. The opportunity to find their passion, see the effect their resources can have and also get the emotional return from seeing change happen. Make no mistake, this pay-off is real, emotional and visceral. For those such as myself with an ulterior motive to see people become long-term committed philanthropists, this is one of the strongest weapons we have.

Why does this matter? At Boncerto we have sat with would-be philanthropists who have found themselves hamstrung knowing they want to get involved and give back but afraid to get started due a lack of vision, plan and fully formed strategy. For these and future philanthropists it is vital we do not overlook the importance that first steps and satisfaction play in building confidence and moving an interest into an addiction.

It also important for critics to remember philanthropy is not a tax. There is no compulsion for individuals to give. Philanthropy is a choice, a passion. Fortunately that passion can and often does become overwhelming, leading to a lifelong engagement.

High-profile initiatives such as the Giving Pledge promoted by Bill Gates highlight this appeal. Many of its 170 billionaires have not just pledged over half their assets to philanthropy but many have also devoted their full-time energies to delivering that social change.

However, even for those long-term committed philanthropists it is important that short-term impact is not forgotten. Long-term systematic change is complicated; a long and intense journey. “Extremely hard work” is how John Caudwell refers to his philanthropy in the same pledge as above. Therefore, to ensure continued passion and engagement it is vital that short-term impacts are both seen and shared, so others can be engaged.

The answer lies in taking a similar approach to philanthropic investments as is taken with capital investments — mixing your portfolio to reflect your needs. A mixed-portfolio approach will enable philanthropists to start feeling the rewards sooner, learn what works for them and may result in a change towards more focused long-term philanthropy.

I am both celebrating Bezos’s announcement and not writing off future long-term impacts.

This comment piece originally appeared in Billionaire magazine.